Monday, February 06, 2012

Logic and Emotion, Poker and the Super Bowl

Ahmad Bradshaw backs into winning TDLike many of you, I, too, watched with interest Super Bowl XLVI last night. Didn’t have a particular favorite in the game, nor did I bet on it in any fashion, other than to enter a fantasy team in the Draft Day freeroll, that is. But as a fan of the NFL I was nonetheless riveted from start to finish by yet another dramatic, highly engaging game that literally came down to the final play.

Since the game represented a rematch from four years ago between the New York Giants (again, technically, an underdog) and the New England Patriots -- and since the game turned out quite similarly to Super Bowl XLII in which a late score by the Giants stole the lead from the favored Pats to deliver New York the win -- most of the post-game talk is understandably involving comparisons to the earlier game.

For me, though, the Super Bowl I was remembering most vividly as I watched this one play out was the one in which my Carolina Panthers came up just short versus New England back in early 2004 (Super Bowl XXXVIII).

Remember that one? For some, the game will be forever remembered as the “wardrobe malfunction” Super Bowl. But it was also probably the most friggin’ exciting football game I’ve ever watched, punctuated by a frenzied fourth quarter in which the Panthers scored three touchdowns, New England scored two, with the Pats tacking on a game-winning field goal with four seconds left to seal a 32-29 win.

Despite himself, Ahmad Bradshaw scores the game-winning TD in Super Bowl XLVIWhile last night’s game didn’t have the rush of scoring at the end, there was a similar up-and-down, roller-coastery feel to the second half, with New England appearing on the verge of crushing New York, the tide of momentum then turning the Giants’ way, then that truly wild sequence near the very end in which the Giants didn’t want to score and the Pats wanted them to score, and thus the go-ahead touchdown was made almost despite the effort of Ahmad Bradshaw to stop his forward progress at the 1-yard-line before he fell back into the endzone.

Actually, that particular play -- in which New England allowed New York to score the go-ahead TD in order to get the ball back with sufficient time to try to score themselves -- recalls one from the end of Super Bowl XXXII when Green Bay let Denver score the go-ahead TD with a little under two minutes left in order to get the ball back with time to try to match the Broncos’ touchdown. The Packers couldn’t do so, however, and Denver won 31-24.

That decision by New England to let Bradshaw score will no doubt be the focus of much debate and commentary during the off-season. I can understand the argument against having done so. Given that New York apparently wasn’t looking to try to score a touchdown and thus would’ve played along, the down and timeout situation added up to New England either winning the game on a missed Giants field goal (very unlikely) or getting the ball back with less than 30 seconds left down by a point.

Instead, New England chose to let the Giants score that TD to go up by more than a field goal and thus got the ball back with about a minute remaining needing to score a touchdown, which meant driving 80 yards in a handful of plays in order to win. And that’s the path they took. To clear a path.

A clear path to the endzoneNeither option was particularly attractive for the Pats. The chance of a missed Giants field goal was close to zero (say 5%?). And if they held NY to that go-ahead FG, the chance of hitting a couple of big plays (i.e., totaling 50 yards) to set up their own long winning field goal was also slim (perhaps 10-15%?). Meanwhile, driving 80 yards in just under a minute with one timeout left was probably no better than a 20-25% shot or so (at best).

I’m sure somebody has already crunched the numbers so as to produce exact percentages on all of these, but we don’t really need precise figures to know it was not an outrageous decision to let the Giants score. Or to understand that the Pats were in a pretty desperate spot at the end, no matter how they chose to play it.

Talk about a poker-like decision, though! So many possible analogies to draw to describe what was going on, the most obvious being the way it resembles deciding to fold and concede one hand in order to preserve enough chips to battle for the next one. As the Giants mounted that final drive, it really felt like a heads-up battle in which one player had seized the momentum and suddenly had a significant chip lead, one that ensured the other was going to need to double-up more than once just to have a chance to win.

In any event, it was a thoroughly exciting game to watch. And unlike that Panthers loss from eight years ago, I was able to enjoy the strategic thinking and execution without all the associated anxiety and stress that stems from having a strong rooting interest.

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